Hall of Fame Class X: Jerome Allen W'09

ON THE PLAQUE: The first player in program history to earn Ivy League Player of the Year two times, he was a part of three Ivy championship squads—all of which went 14-0. A three-time first-team All-Ivy and All-Big 5 selection, he ended his career at Penn as the program’s all-time leader in assists and steals. He also scored 1,488 points, good for fifth on the program’s all-time chart. Drafted in the second round by the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Later served as Head Coach of the Quakers from 2009-15.

Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 5, 2017

The Boston Celtics’ charter plane had just landed when Jerome Allen W’09 jumped to his feet — not to get off the flight but to continue yelling wildly at the video stream on his cell phone. Soon enough, most of the Celtics players had gathered behind him to watch the Penn-Princeton game in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament. 

Sure, one or two of the NBA players unaccustomed to watching Ivy League hoops may have playfully ribbed Allen by calling out, “When’s the Patriot League Tournament?” But Allen — the Penn basketball legend who became a Celtics assistant coach two years ago after a five-and-a-half-year tenure at the Quakers’ helm — always makes sure to dish it right back. Sometimes, he’ll joke with Boston star Isaiah Thomas that he wouldn’t have been able to guard his old Penn teammate Matt Maloney C’95. Other times, he’ll remind them that when he was coaching the Quakers in 2011, they “had Kentucky on the ropes at Rupp!” And, of course, he’ll always wear a Palestra T-shirt or other Penn gear whenever he can.

“You’d be surprised how much trash talk goes on between the guys,” Allen said while sitting in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, a few hours before the Celtics played the 76ers in mid-March. “They’ll ask, ‘Penn ever play in the [NCAA] Tournament?’ And I’ll say, ‘We’re in the top [20] all-time wins in the NCAA! Y’all got Google! Y’all got smart phones! What are you talking about?’”

Allen understands that some might question why he remains such a fervent Penn supporter, even after he and the school unceremoniously parted ways in 2015 following his disappointing tenure as head coach. But, in many ways, he’s thankful that one door closing allowed another unique one to open in the NBA, thanks to a relationship he built with Celtics head coach Brad Stevens when Stevens was at Butler and Allen at Penn (not to mention the fact that his former assistant coach at Penn, Mike Lintulahti, was the one who strongly suggested he reach out to Stevens about the job opening). And his love for Penn, where two of his four children now attend, will never be extinguished, nor will anyone at the University ever forget how terrific he was as a student-athlete — which is why he’s set to be inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame this year.

“Penn has been awesome for me and my family,” Allen said. “Everything I’ve received in life has been a direct result of Penn.”

Allen never expected the University to have this kind of influence on his life when he first stepped foot on campus in the fall of 1991 as a “kid that didn’t have a clue from North Philadelphia.” But he leaned on seniors Vince Curran ENG’92 W’92 and Paul Chambers C’92 to learn the ropes, while following the lead of unflappable former coach Fran Dunphy, who will be entering the Hall of Fame in the same class as Allen. 

“He was just special,” said Dunphy, who coached at Penn from 1989 to 2006 before leaving for Temple. “As good of a player as he was, his leadership was even more important. His way about going to work was very special for us.”

The Quakers showed some promise during Allen’s freshman year, going 16-10 overall and 9-5 in the Ivy League (though Allen likes to point out that, in one of the team’s losses, vs. Temple, Curran should have passed him the ball in the final seconds). But they took a huge leap in the 1992-93 season as Allen teamed with Maloney, a transfer from Vanderbilt, to form arguably the greatest backcourt in the program’s storied history. And for the next three years, they led Penn to astonishing heights: three Ivy League championships, a perfect 48-0 record in conference play, and Penn’s last win in the NCAA Tournament.

By the time Allen left Penn — and moved on to a brief spell in the NBA (along with teammates Maloney and Ira Bowman W’96), followed by a long playing career in Europe — he was named the Ivy League Player of the Year twice and finished with 1,518 career points (currently ninth in program history), 505 assists (second all-time) and 166 steals (second all-time).

“Obviously I’m biased, but I don’t think there’s been a better, more complete player to ever step foot on campus,” said Bowman, who played with Allen during the 1994-95 season and is now a Penn assistant coach. “And outside of assists, points, steals and rebounds, everything he did for me personally, that team, this brand, is immeasurable. I think people across the globe know about Penn because of Jerome Allen.”

Although Allen says he and his teammates “never talked” about their Ivy League streak while playing — you can credit Dunphy for that — he does have some fond memories looking back on the remarkable run. One of his favorites came at Princeton in the final game of the 1992-93 regular season when the Tigers’ Rick Hielscher hit what would have been a game-winning shot right after the buzzer sounded. “You don’t know what to expect from the scorers’ table when you’re playing on the road at Princeton,” Allen cracked. And he still marvels at a road weekend during his senior year when the Quakers pummelled Columbia and Cornell by 40 points each on back-to-back nights — which showed him “just how locked in we were.”

The most memorable moments, though, probably came in the NCAA Tournament. After narrowly losing to UMass in the first round of the 1993 tourney, the Quakers stormed to a 90-80 upset win over Nebraska at the ’94 Big Dance with Allen scoring 18 points and dishing 10 assists. 

But even though the victory was Penn’s first in the NCAA Tournament since 1980 (and the Quakers haven’t accomplished the feat since), Allen recalls there not being too much of a wild celebration because that’s not something Dunphy would have wanted. His mother Janet didn’t get the message, storming the Nassau Coliseum court to wrap Allen in a huge hug.

“I said, ‘Mom, what are you doing? Get off the court!,’” Allen recalled with a laugh. “Fast forward to when I was coaching at Penn and we beat Cornell [in 2010 when the Big Red were nationally ranked] at the Palestra and she did the same thing. I was like, ‘Mom, come on!’ But it goes back to not really understanding the magnitude of the decision in the fall of ‘91, which is that my entire family [felt like] they went to Penn. She wasn’t wrong. She was really happy. And today after every game we win now, when I pull my phone out before we get on the bus or I get in my car, I’ll know one of the first texts I’ll have is from her.”

The 1995 NCAA Tournament game didn’t lead to the same kind of Allen family celebration as Penn lost a 91-85 overtime heartbreaker to Alabama. But, in many ways, it was a fitting end to Allen’s college career as the senior guard shined on the national stage with 30 points (nine fewer than Alabama’s Antonio McDyess, who Allen later played with on the Denver Nuggets and used to tell him, “You should give me some of your check; we helped get you drafted!”). 

Today, when Allen thinks about his final college game, he remembers a couple of his good friends at Penn who were in attendance, one of whom was captured in a Sports Illustrated photo with a tear running down his face. It’s a reminder how much Penn basketball means to so many people — which is something he carried with him during his 14-year professional playing career; when he returned to his alma mater, first as an assistant coach in 2009; and even now as he’s telling NBA stars all about great moments in Quaker history.

“Everything comes to an end but we had a great run and a great group of guys,” Allen said. “Penn changed my life.”